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Is there really still a Debate on “Is Creole a Language?”


This is the longer version of an article published in L’Express Weekly, 15 April, 2011, written by 3 LPT members who are also in LALIT, which LPT has sent for publishing on the LALIT site.

From tomorrow, 19 April 2011, parents will be able to select “Mauritian Kreol” as a subject for their child who is entering school for the very first time in Standard One. What a historic moment.

The Government has already adopted a national orthography. It is being popularized right now. A grammar reference book for teachers is being finalized by the Akademi Kreol Morisyen right now. Teachers are being recruited for 2012, and the Curriculum is being prepared. We should seize the moment.

Meanwhile, although it is a decreasing little band, there are still some Mauritians who persist in saying that Kreol Morisyen is not a language “yet”, given, they say, that the “debate” on this question is supposedly still “going on” as to whether it is or is not a language! Well, one question is “what is a debate?” and what is the end of a debate and the acceptation of science. Another question is “who is bringing up non-scientific prejudice?” We do not need to go into the question of why they do it. Let them examine themselves.

With hindsight on 400 years ago, it is not just because Christianity ferociously opposed Galileo and Copernicus’ findings about heliocentrism (earth revolving round the sun and not vice versa) that we can claim that “a debate has been going on” ever since then. Can we? Science decides issues. The earth actually does revolve around the sun. It is no longer a matter of opinion for debating purposes. It is proven a thousand times over. The contrary was never true. Anyone who today calls for repression against scientists for saying so would seem ludicrous nowadays.

In the soi-disant “raging debate” about Kreol Morisyen in the 21st Century in Mauritius, you have, on one side of the floor, over 65% of people (1) including scientists and all linguistics scientists. The latter have proof going back 60 years that all Creole languages are full languages, equal to any other language. They have proof that the contrary was never true.

On the other side you’ve got a band of “faithfuls” (most often belonging to the class of teachers or other intellectual elites), who are not linguists. They do not cite any scientifically proven sources, and they just maintain baldly that Creole is not a language. They do not refer to statistics, research or quoted sources to validate their arguments about Creole being not a language, but just assert it or sneakily imply it. That gives us a clue that they are only fighting in the “light” of what they believe in; only unsubstantiated personal beliefs motivate them to write their articles, which are then relayed by the press. And they are fighting, just as any Christian believer could have done in the obscure times of Vatican’s hegemony in Europe, for “ideas” based on irrational belief. This is called “prejudice”.

Language makes us humans!
Language is what many consider as The Rubicon between us and all other living species. Language makes us humans! That is true indeed, from a scientific, evolutionary point of view. No apes – Washoe and Lana, with the help of Scientists like Gardners, Rumbaugh, no sea lions through Ron Schusterman’ research, no sea dolphins with the help of Lou Herman, and no African grey parrots trained by Irene Pepperberg – have been able to use language as humans do. (2)

What humans can do (and that is astounding!) is “answering the phone, talking to those you love,” and once you have been taught formally, “following instructions to cook chicken using a new recipe, playing any game (you learned the rules, spoken or written, through language). [...] Rehearsing the excuses you’ll make to your boss for coming in late” (3). We can, through language, understand things, plan things, change things, re-assess things, challenge things, create things, anticipate things, organize things. Our language capacity opens endless possibilities that other species do not have.

But where do we get language from then?
It is important to think about where the human language capacity actually comes from. “In the philosophy of language, a natural language (or ordinary language) is any language which arises in an unpremeditated fashion as the result of the innate facility for language possessed by the human intellect. A natural language … may be spoken, signed, or, [if formally taught] written.” (4)

For linguists, who are scientists, language develops in children in a natural manner provided they are in society. No scholars and no teachers are involved. A two- or three-year-old learns naturally from other children in the yard. “There are approximately 7,000 current human languages, and many, if not most seem to share certain properties, leading to the belief in the existence of Universal Grammar, as shown by generative grammar studies pioneered by the work of Noam Chomsky.” (5) The syntactical structures we use come naturally. Language is more than just a means of communication; it is our means of understanding the world, a means we have inherited over a long process of evolution. The Creole languages are different from others in that they are, in fact, born spontaneously and over just one generation, when cohorts of this generation of young children find themselves, by a massive social upheaval like forced slavery, in a situation where they are confronted with many mutually incomprehensible languages being spoken by the adults around them. A new language gets generated. This is the wonder of the Creole languages, including Mauritian Kreol. They are grammatically as efficient as any other language, if not more efficient! Any linguistics expert will agree with this.

It is insidious to even pose the question “Is Creole a Language?”
The question “Is Creole a Language?” proves to be pure colonial prejudice. Let us see how!

Try to figure out to what species you are alleging that our 18th and 19th Century ancestors, speaking the “Creole non-language” (or the “Bhojpuri non-language”) actually belong to? (6) And what species do we today belong to, if we speak a “non-language”? If you claim our ancestors, and we ourselves, do not possess a true language – that is English/French – as a merry band of ignorant Mauritians still blithely maintain –, that means our ancestors were ‘sub-human’ and that we today are also sub-human! When someone claims that “Creole is not a language”, it confirms the totally ridiculous, colonial, racist prejudice that some people are supposedly inferior, and because they are inferior, their language, it follows, is inferior, and if our language is not a language at all, then, what you are saying, is that we are not human at all. This particular prejudice suited the pillage that colonization was. It suited the cruelty that slavery entailed. It was used as attempted justification for the violent invasion and subsequent domination of the Americas, Africa and Australia.(7) It was never acceptable. Power gave it protection. And today it is just outrageous that people can still maintain it, even if masking it by pretending “the debate still rages on”.

What UNESCO says ...
For the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, all mother tongues are equal. UNESCO maintains that the mother tongue must be used as medium in education up to the highest possible level. Other languages are obviously introduced as subjects. In fact, the other languages develop to higher levels when the mother tongue is used as medium for cognition in all subjects. UNESCO goes further, saying “it is thus urgent to take action to encourage broad and international commitment to promoting multilingualism and linguistic diversity, including the safeguarding of endangered languages.”(8) If those Mauritians ignorant of what a language is were aware that UNESCO in 2004 awarded the world-prize for its literacy courses in Mauritian Kreol to Ledikasyon pu Travayer, they would perhaps be au fait that UNESCO, relying on scientific findings, knows that Mauritian Kreol is a language. At last, the Mauritian State, the Government, with support from the Opposition, is finally introducing Mauritian Kreol into school, if only as “a subject”. Bhojpuri, too, is being recognized.

Now mother tongues must be introduced into the National Assembly, especially once debates are televised. They must be permitted in Minutes of Associations, minutes which represent our collective memory.

The real question
The question remains how these Mauritians, often so-called “intellectuals”, though small in numbers, can still argue the totally unscientific point that “Creole is not a language yet”? They are like those who persist that the sun goes around the earth every day. Only they are much worse. Because they are, in fact, saying something so racist and so hurtful that it is unbelievable that the people speaking this way are, otherwise, often quite “nice people”.

Jean-Yves Dick, April 2011

(1) Survey by SOFRES 2009,
(2) From Derek BICKTERTON, Adam’s Tongue, Hill and Wang, 2009
(3) ibid., page 4
(4) (Italics and bold are mine.)
(6) Refer to Mauritian Creole Language by Charles Baissac (1831-1892)
(7) Refer to Prof. Robert Phillipson on Language Imperialism